Jean Gillie in Decoy (1946): Noir’s ultimate anti-heroine

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Detour (1945) might be the greatest of all B-noirs, but Decoy (1946) is certainly the most bizarre and when it comes to film noir, that’s just as valid. I’ve often said that I think the famous resuscitation scene is probably the weirdest moment in all of film noir history, because… well, they literally bring a guy back to life, so obviously believability is not an option when it comes to Decoy. And I love it. I absolutely love how utterly ‘out there’ this movie is. But what I really, truly admire about it is that its bizarre nature does not take away from its central character, the extraordinary Margot Shelby, played by Jean Gillie. Margot Shelby is a masterpiece of a character. Margot Shelby IS Decoy. But wait. Let’s try and get through this truly noir-ish plot first: Dr Craig (Herbert Rudley) travels to San Francisco to get kill Margot, a gangster who screwed him out of half of $400,000. As she lay dying, she tells Sergeant Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) how it all happened. In this flashback, we start off in prison, where Margot’s boyfriend Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong) is to die in the gas chamber. She wants to know the location of the money, so she orchestrates a plan to get his body out of the morgue, bring him back to life with a rare  (!) and get him to tell her where the money is. She gets fellow gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) and Dr. Craig to help her carry out her plan and in true noir fashion, things go awry…

At only one hour and fifteen minutes, Decoy (dir. Jack Bernhard) manages to take us down the strangest noir path, and from the very beginning, it’s all about Margot Shelby, starting with the fact that she herself is the narrator, which doesn’t happen very often (Claire Trevor in Raw Deal (1948) is another one). That’s what I love about this movie. Margot is the one in charge. She’s the one who knows about the medicine. She’s the one who comes up the plan. She’s the one who gathers her men in order to carry it out. And she’s the one who sees things through. She’s not the femme fatale, contrary to popular belief. Oh no. She’s the main character. The anti-hero (anti-heroine?). A smart, confident, self-assured, deeply troubled and absolutely greedy anti-hero. Some might even say, she’s the villain. Because she really is absolutely diabolical. But like with any anti-hero, there’s a reason for it, as she explains to Jim: she had a rough childhood on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks and she won’t go back. Who would? She wants money. She wants security. She wants to make a life for herself. Sue her! This scene, in which she lets her guard down for just a few minutes, is the one that convinces me she was always meant to the hero of the picture. Could she have made better decisions? Probably. Is she going about it the right way? Clearly not. But reason doesn’t walk the streets of film noir. And Margot Shelby is only doing what she can to survive. She’s as greedy as they come, but we get it. We may even warm to her. And why not? She’s all we’ve got. I mean, you could probably argue that Sergeant Portugal is an equally sympathizing character, but he’s a cop. This is noir! If you don’t root for the bad guys, why are you even watching? The point is, she is the bad guy. And yet, we love her. For all the wrong reasons. She’s unspeakably wicked, impossibly cruel and chillingly bad to the bone. Don’t worry, I’m not glorifying her. Which is something that Decoy also doesn’t do. Crime doesn’t pay. And they all fall down. Right down to the mastermind. That alone puts her right up there with her film noir contemporaries.

Jean Gillie’s untimely demise at 33 years old is a darn shame, but her Margot Shelby lives on. Even if it takes a while to discover her. Because once you do, you won’t look back. I adore Margot Shelby. I absolutely love her. And I always seem to go back to her in my own writing (I write a lot of dark stuff!). And I seem to have subconsciouly based a lot of my characters – both in screenplays and stage plays – on her. Because there’s so much to take from her. So many possibilities. For all of Decoy‘s B-movie, low-budget, fabulous bizarreness, Margot Shelby still comes out on top. She’s the greatest thing in a long list of great things about it and she must never be overlooked in the grand pantheon of film noir characters.

7 thoughts on “Jean Gillie in Decoy (1946): Noir’s ultimate anti-heroine

  1. Mike

    I saw this film based on your recommendation Carol. It truly is a hidden classic. Don’t know why it isn’t more well know. Maybe doesn’t have enough star power. Better than some other well known classics.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Top of the World: Top 100 Favourite Films Noirs for #Noirvember 2019 (OMG!) – The Wonderful World of Cinema

  3. Wonderful piece Carol! I agree with everything you said. Yes, I was rooting villains! I was so stressed during the resurection scene, stressed that they woul fail. Ha! And Margot Shelby is such a well constructed character. It’s interesting that she inspires you for your writing because I’m also inspired by a film noir character for some of my screenplays (even some that have nothing to do with film noir): Kasas Richman (Ella Raines) in Phantom Lady. 🙂
    Ps: Thanks again for making me discovered this film!

    Liked by 1 person

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